Seeking the Conservative Evangelical Vote

February 10, 2011

The CPAC annual gathering of conservative activists and Republican politicians started this morning and continues over the next couple of days. In many ways, the meeting is the first important test of Republican presidential hopefuls for the 2012 cycle. Nearly all of those who appear to be planning to run are on the agenda. There has been some controversy this year due to the participation of GOProud, a conservative gay-rights organization. Due to the inclusion of GOProud, several conservative Christian groups backed out of the event. Groups like the Family Research Council (run by Tony Perkins and started by James Dobson), American Values (led by Gary Bauer), and Liberty Council (affiliated with Jerry Falwell's Liberty University) are boycotting the meeting. Interestingly, CitizenLink (started by James Dobson) is still part of the event. GOProud's leader claims the boycotts have nothing to do with policy (since conservatives like Dick Cheney and John Bolton share the same policy on marriage laws) but that the attacks are coming because the GOProud members are gay. This controversy comes just months after the Family Research Council was labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center (a key civil-rights group) due to the FRC's sharp rhetoric against homosexuals.

As the presidential hopefuls show up at CPAC this weekend, it is interesting to see how some of them are working hard to reach out to conservative evangelical Christians. Earlier today, Rick Santorum gave a faith-filled speech at CPAC and is clearly working to connect with evangelical voters. Additionally, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (who speaks at CPAC tomorrow) is also clearly revving up his presidential aspirations by highlighting his evangelical credentials. He recently sat down for an interview with CBN (founded by Pat Robertson), in which he testified:

We believe in Jesus Christ. ... We believe what Jesus taught is things that we not only believe in but try our very best to follow. Jesus is who he says he is and it's both simple, but also profound.
Vin Weber, another former governor of Minnesota, said in the story that Pawlenty is "a Minnesota evangelical," adding that [i]n the upper Midwest, we're a little bit more reserved" than those in the South who are "a little more expressive about their faith in politics." Pawlenty, however, seems to be working to overcome that difference. He also gave an interview recently with Christianity Today (an evangelical publication started in part by Billy Graham) and an interview with CitizenLink radio. Earlier this week, Pawlenty spoke at a gathering of the Family Leader, an umbrella group of conservative Christian organizations in Iowa. The Family Leader is led by Bob Vander Plaats (who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for Iowa Governor last year) and will host several other presidential hopefuls over the next few months as the group clearly is exerting influence in our age of confessional politics. Pawlenty has also been holding book-signing events at Christian bookstores. Interestingly, President Barack Obama last week named Pawlenty's pastor, Leith Anderson (who is also President of the National Association of Evangelicals) as a new member of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Despite these outreaches, Pawlenty's bid fails to impress Richard Land, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention's political efforts. Land argued that Pawlenty is "a really nice guy" but lacks the "charisma" needed to win. Land added:
They're [evangelicals] not going to nominate someone who they think can't beat Barack Obama." ... They're going to want the strongest pro-life, pro-family candidate ... who's strong on defense. They want a candidate who is an economic conservative.
However, considering Land's terrible track-record on political punditry, Pawlenty probably should not let such doubts concern him. Pawlenty clearly knows how to effectively communicate in our age of confessional politics where candidates are expected to publicly testify about their personal Christian beliefs. That is one reason why he made John McCain's shortlist for vice president in 2008 and why Pawlenty could be a strong presidential candidate if he can improve his name recognition.

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